Managing Conflict in Project Management

Managing Conflict in Project Management

Managing conflict during the course of a project is natural, so many people involved all with differing opinions and attitudes. The difference for a project manager being burnt by those conflicts or resolving the dispute is what separates the real good project managers from the rest. Anger often surfaces when one strong opinion differs from another and hence an opinion fight occurs.

One of the most critical skills for managing conflict is the ability to go beyond anger and allow the right degree of reason to moderate emotions in order to steer the mind towards greater understanding.  Greater understanding leads to more effective conflict management resulting in better decisions, healthier relationships and optimal solutions that seek to satisfy the needs of all parties.   

Within a project context, a conflict is any issue that keeps people from coming to an agreement.  It might be called a dispute, disagreement, issue, problem, or any number of other things, depending on its complexity and the intensity of the differences among the people involved. Managing conflict is more of an art than a science.  It seeks to reach a resolution or the acknowledgement that no resolution is possible.  It requires balancing mindful awareness, emotions, intuition, rational thinking, empathy, and effective communications to creatively navigate the relationships among the parties to the issue.  An intention to act with compassion, to reach win-win resolutions, plus an attitude of mutual respect is important ingredients for effective conflict management.

Interpersonal relationships are at the heart of effective conflict management, which can be complex at best. The ability to trade anger for understanding is a great skill to have, but this doesn’t come by easily, as at times it implies that one is more likely to be successful in resolving conflicts if one avoids the knee jerk reaction to convince the other guy.  Instead, one turns attention to finding out what he or she is thinking and why he or she is thinking it. To understand requires stepping back, opening the mind and objectively “listening.” Not just listening with the ears but with all the senses.  

We as humans have a capacity to process cues, some obvious, like words and overt behaviours, and some more subtle, like body language, eye movements and tone.  To better understand where another person is coming from and why, cultivate that capacity and the mindfulness and concentration to enable objective observation.  Then, fold understanding into the decision making and conflict management process.  

Anger, ranging from mild frustration to rage, is a common emotion when dealing with conflict.  Anger arises out of the fear that we won’t get what we want.  Fixation on the desire to have things just as we want them closes the rational mind.  Anger is a powerful emotion; an energy being sensed in the body and mind.  Anger is both understandable and not to be suppressed.  However, left unchecked it blocks reason leads to division, poor decisions, and verbal abuse and at time possibly worse. It makes understanding more difficult, if not impossible. 

Anger breaks down the conflict management process.  It is more damaging to the one who is angry than to the subject of the anger, particularly when the cause of the anger is in the situation itself.  For example, anger at a system that throws up political and bureaucratic obstacles to getting projects done on time and within budget can damage individual and team morale.  Anger channeled skillfully can fuel sharp thinking.  Use it as an alarm to signal over attachment to ‘the only way’.  Transform anger into crystal clarity and wisdom.  Use the energy of anger to seek understanding.

Understand several things about the players in the conflict, including you. What is their motivation?  What are their needs and wants?  What do they believe winning means?  Who are they trying to please by winning?  What do those external players (sponsors, executives, managers, clients) really want?  What expectations, biases, cultural norms, external constraints, values and models do they bring to the table?  What is their conflict style – Forcing, Avoiding, Collaborating or Compromising?   Are they more likely to be driven by their emotions or are they more inclined to be caught up in their analysis to the exclusion of emotions and intuition?  

When we understand others and ourselves, we recognize that we are not so different from our adversaries.  Compassion emerges to fuel mutual respect and a desire to reach win-win outcomes. 

Conflict is a fact of life. Managed well it is a critical factor in successfully achieving objectives, including the objective to make relationships as healthy as possible, both in the short and long terms. To manage it well goes way beyond bias and insisting on “my way or the highway.” To do that, cultivate the ability to step back and understand the dynamics that are in play.  Avoid reactivity to maximize responsiveness.  Rely on intuition and analysis based on understanding.

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